There have long been two sets of de facto marijuana laws: one that punishes people of color in poor communities; and another, far more lenient — when they are enforced at all — for whites, mostly in the suburbs. This is largely because of discriminatory law enforcement. Blacks and Latinos have long been at least three times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana possession. Those who oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use would have us believe that a half-measure, called decriminalization, would end this social injustice of the past 80 years. They want us to treat low-level marijuana possession like a civil, not a criminal, offense. This, they say, will solve the problem. They also argue that decriminalization is the best way to protect public safety. They are wrong on both counts. Historical perspective is helpful here. Anti-marijuana advocates opposed medical marijuana, now legal in 33 states, every step of the way. Many, including Alex Berenson in his new book Tell Our Children, still do: “Marijuana is not medicine.” he writes. Most opponents were also against decriminalization when it was first brought forward. Decriminalization is now is their new line in the sand. They are united in supporting it. Why does decriminalization not eliminate the harmful effects of law enforcement primarily on minority communities? Civil offenses generally include a fine – up to $200 in Illinois. Fines can have a debilitating effect on lives at the margin. The New York Times and National Public Radio have both thoroughly documented the impact that accumulating fines can have on those living paycheck to paycheck. The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money to cover an emergency expense of $400. Decriminalization continues to provide law enforcement with an excuse to target poor communities of color. “In certain communities, some police just throw the book at people,” an activist commented recently. Until marijuana is legal, it will potentially continue to be an instrument of harassment. Some people sell marijuana to support a substance use disorder or because they have no other means to subsist and, in some cases, feed their families. Decriminalization does not address this issue. A legal, regulated market with a focus on social equity could provide opportunities for these people to seek treatment or jobs. Finally, marijuana arrests continue to be higher under decriminalization. This is because the amount of marijuana one can possess with legalization is higher, usually 30 grams, rather than 10 grams under decriminalization. In Washington, marijuana convictions decreased by 76% from 2011 to 2015 and by 96% in Oregon between 2013 and 2016. When it comes to public safety, opponents fail to recognize that decriminalization is still a form of prohibition. In fact, it is the same kind of prohibition that was disastrously applied to alcohol in the 1920’s. Decriminalizing marijuana without legalizing it does not solve any of the problems associated with prohibition. It does not address the issues of the illicit, street corner, school yard, back alley markets and their myriad negative effects on both communities and drug users. Without a regulated market, any time individuals buy drugs they are doing so through the black market from an unlicensed dealer. They have no way of verifying what they are actually buying, and no recourse if something goes wrong. Legalizing marijuana, and creating a taxed and regulated market, will solve these problems. A regulated retail market will make it safer for people to use marijuana, create jobs, and provide opportunities to revitalize neighborhoods trampled by the War on Drugs. These opportunities are just not possible – even as current injustices continue – under decriminalization. In short, despite what opponents say, stopping short of full legalization does not ensure social justice nor does it adequately service public safety. Decriminalization is not enough. Tom Houseman, Policy DirectorRev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director
In theological terms that go back to Augustine and Aquinas, the War on Drugs is not a Just War. First, it has no reasonable chance of success. Second, it has disproportionately harmed others, especially people of color. Third, reasonable alternatives exist, especially drug treatment rather than jail or prison for those struggling with substance use disorder. As we head into 2019, thirty-three states have now legalized medical marijuana, 13 have decriminalized it, and 10 have approved legalization for recreational use. Policy debates are intensifying as opponents fear a new national approach to drug policy is taking hold. Witness the just published book Tell Our Children by journalist and novelist Alex Berenson warning that marijuana can cause psychosis and other mental illness. This is not a new concern. But as similar incomplete and partisan tracts appear, it is more important than ever before to examine the basic assumptions underlying the national marijuana debate. The struggle is really between “prohibition” and “regulation.” Is this too simple? I don’t think so. Those opposing legalization now make their stand at decriminalization. This is really a soft word for prohibition. All production and distribution would remain with the illicit market. Low level users are given a civil citation, a small fine, like a traffic ticket. The same was true during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: drinking liquor was legal, but selling it was not. The best way to think about drug use and most other vices (defined as any activity that provides pleasure but also the possibility of harm) is set forth in the book Regulating Vice by James Leitzel, who teaches public policy and economics at the University of Chicago. Leitzel argues for regulations that protect youth, those in the throes of addiction and therefore unable to make rational decisions, and drug use that will likely harm others, such as driving while intoxicated. None of this requires prohibition, which creates more harm than good. As for legalization, I tell my clergy colleagues that is a misnomer: what they are really supporting is “regulation and taxation.” I have heard opponents assert that we are encouraging marijuana use. In fact, we are merely acknowledging the reality of drugs in our society, including marijuana, and seeking the most effective ways to prevent abuse. The clearest evidence of the prohibition mindset is the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. According to this Schedule, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and ecstasy, and has “no currently accepted medical use.” Federal agencies use this classification to block scientific studies even as they oppose drug policy reform citing a lack of research. Most opponents of marijuana legalization try to defend this nonsensical classification. Where does all this leave us? On November 20, 2018, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III laid out a critical next step: “our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken… [Congress must] remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)” and legalize it at the federal level. After 47 years of a tragic War on Drugs that has cost our nation over $1 trillion dollars and destroyed innumerable lives, federal legalization will make it possible to continue to test regulation, starting with marijuana, at the state level. Perhaps, at long last, we can end drug prohibition and achieve a national policy concerning drug use that best meets the needs of all our citizens. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director
Three nationally prominent physicians have just spoken out in a prestigious journal in support of marijuana legalization. The November issue of the American Journal of Public Health features an article by Dr. H. Westley Clark, Dr. Joyce Elders, and Dr. David Nathan titled “The Case for Marijuana Legalization.” Dr. Clark has a distinguished record as the Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment SAMSHA for 16 years. He is currently Dean’s Executive Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University. Dr. Elders is well known as the former Surgeon General under President William Clinton; she is now professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Dr. Nathan is a psychiatrist in Princeton, New Jersey and serves as the Director of Continuing Medical Education for the Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS). In 2015 he joined with colleagues to found Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), described in the article as “the first and only national physicians organization dedicated to the legalization and regulation of the adult use of cannabis.” “The unjust prohibition of marijuana has done more damage to public health than has marijuana itself,” according to these three experts. They point to the high number of marijuana arrests—about 575,000 every year in the United States; the disproportionate impact of marijuana laws on African Americans; and the fact that the implementation of current marijuana laws leads to increased poverty, itself a public health issue. The authors argue that prohibition has failed: “over 22,000 million Americans use cannabis each month.” They note that “both marijuana and alcohol can adversely affect brain development in minors.” But they point out that prohibition has not prevented underage use; in fact, it misleads by sending a message that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, which youth “know is not true.” The authors believe that decriminalization (treating low-level marijuana possession as a civil offense, comparable to a traffic ticket), is a welcome step. Decriminalization does not, however, end the need for regulation, which enables individuals to know what they are using, protects against a contaminated product, and can constrain bad marketing practices, such as targeting youth. The article offers a set of recommendations about how marijuana should be legalized, including government oversight of production, testing, distribution, and sales, rigorous standards of labeling, clear information about amount and content of what is being consumed; and other measures. Here is the full text of the article.
One need not be socially conservative to feel surprise, and even deep skepticism, over the recent call of the Drug Policy Alliance to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, not just marijuana. I expect that many of my progressive friends and colleagues will lift their eyebrows and flinch just a little when I mention the topic to them. Why? Because, frankly, they haven’t thought very much about this—it’s only just entering public debate in the United States—and they therefore understand very little about the key issues and concerns. Here is what I want them to know. As a start, we must all be clear that decriminalization does not mean an end to sanctions against trafficking, which would remain illegal. But decriminalization would end the prosecution of those who possess and use small amounts of any drug. It would keep them out of the criminal justice system. A summary of the DPA Report, “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession,” lists some of the things that would happen: “Decriminalization will allow us to more effectively help drug users who want help”: No longer branded as criminals, individuals will be more likely to seek treatment; providers will be able to offer harm reduction as well as abstinence-only forms of treatment. “Decriminalization will reduce the number of people sucked into the criminal justice system”: A person cannot be arrested for something that is not a crime. “Decriminalization will help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into society”: Low-level drug use in itself is not an adequate reason for individuals to be returned to jail, forfeit custody of their children, lose their jobs, fail to qualify for business loans, or be ineligible for student aid, subsidized housing, or financial assistance. It is only our pervasive national culture of punishment that has created these barriers to becoming productive members of society. This culture must change. Two other likely impacts are especially important. First, the evidence is convincing that decriminalization of all drugs will not increase drug use. In June, Pew Charitable Trusts informed the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that its analysis had shown no relationship between criminal sanctions and drug use or harms related to drug use. Specifically, Pew’s research found “no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and … illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, or drug arrests. “Moreover, marijuana use has not increased in the 29 states that have passed marijuana; it has not increased in the 21 states and Washington DC where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized; and it has not increased in other nations where similar policies have been adopted. Finally, the DPA report predicts that “Decriminalization will decrease negative interactions between individuals and the police.” The War on Drugs has destroyed relations between law enforcement and communities. As James Gierach, a long-time advocate of ending the War on Drugs, has written, “Violent crime has taken a back seat to drug enforcement for too long, and has changed the way police relate to marginalized communities, who no longer see police as protectors, but as aggressors.” When drivers can be arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana if they are pulled over for a broken taillight, when neighbors are afraid to call police over a minor altercation or domestic violence because they have seen the consequences when minor drug possession is discovered, and when 911 calls to report an apparent drug overdose can expose bystanders to criminal charges, police will not be trusted to serve and protect. In communities where police no longer are directed to “throw the book” at minor drug offenders, they have been better able to offer immediate help and direct those who need it to treatment. These are some of the things we need to know about drug decriminalization. Let’s start making the case together.
Endorse the Drug Policy Alliance’s report It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use! Use the icons below to share this report with your congregations, communities, and local networks! What is drug decriminalization? Drug decriminalization refers to the elimination of all criminal penalties for drug use, drug possession and the possession of equipment for consuming drugs. Under this legal framework, drug production, trafficking, distribution, driving under the influence, or other conduct that goes beyond simple possession or use – particularly conduct that might harm others – remain criminal offenses. How does decriminalization differ from legalization? Legalization includes the regulation and control of legal drug production and sales to adults without a prescription (as is the case with alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in some parts of the country). We are not advocating for legal production and sales here. We are proposing a system in which drug use and possession are addressed wholly outside of the criminal justice system. What does decriminalization look like in practice?